**½/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras C
starring Charlie Sheen, Christopher McDonald, David Sherrill, Jeff Cesario
screenplay by David Sherrill & David Michael O'Neill
directed by David Michael O'Neill
by Walter Chaw Men's coming-of-age pictures fall into the categories of finding a dead body by the side of the train tracks, making a bet during a personal summer of '69 concerning getting laid, or going away with the buddies on the eve of marriage (or the aftermath of a suicide, though some might say, "Same difference"). (Trouble at home, Walter? -Ed.) They are films, in other words, about courage, about a journey, and about sex and rituals of mortality. Hyphenate David Michael O'Neill's Five Aces is another in that long-standing tradition of pseudo-nostalgic man-sensitive buddy flicks, this one free of the stultifying voice-over narration but not of the contracted timeframe and forced epiphanies. On these masculine journeys of self-discovery, you see, the spotlight shines on each pilgrim in his turn like a twisted middle-class milk dud version of The Canterbury Tales.
Chris (Charlie Sheen) is engaged, so his buddies (four of the titular five aces) drag him out to a remote cabin in his old stamping grounds for a weekend of soulful monologues, meaningful dialogues, and dalliances with the local fauna (fistfights and danger of adultery rules the day). Over 48 hours, Chris witnesses a buddy's marriage turning sour, runs into an old flame trying to rekindle, and is presented with a multitude of reasons why he shouldn't tie the knot. The conflict of Five Aces, what there is of it, is built around the really-never-in-doubt decision that Chris has to make at the end of the tunic-ripping melodrama.
For fully half the picture's brief 95 minutes, Five Aces presents surprisingly realistic and sympathetic characters engaging in well- written and performed conversations. The camera is unobtrusive and the film is absent of the kind of flesh and fireworks that mar its second half. For an incandescent spell, Five Aces promises to be that rare direct-to-video find indicated by intelligence, ambition, and clarity of vision. It falters badly when the reclusive writer-type waxes nauseous on the rape of an ex-girlfriend, the garrulous nerd-type gets the tar beaten out of him in a parking lot, and the sleazy womanizing-type exposes his inner hurts to a man in a robe. The soliloquies proceed with metronome-like precision, and by the time it's Chris' turn on the pulpit, you can count down the seconds to the preordained conclusion.
The film earns a recommendation for the rapport and general likeability of our sensitive heroes, but it comes with the warning that Five Aces only maintains its integrity for about an act-and-a-half before succumbing to the mawkish and the easy. The goodwill that it engenders forgives the missteps for a while, but that sinking feeling that the picture is steadily going astray eventually usurps even the staunchest of believers. There are worse films than Five Aces for certain, but whether it's worth your time is entirely reliant on the extent to which you feel you can suffer the promise of a good film betrayed. With a small movie like this, I'll savour what pleasures I can get.
Fox releases Five Aces to the DVD format in a 1.33:1 "pan and scan" (by the box art's own admission) transfer that looks fine, if predictably grainy and muted. Black levels are soft and contrast spotty at best, but the negative is clearly un-travelled and clean (save for a line in chapter 11). The Dolby 5.1 mix provides decent usage of the left and right channels with a few atmospherics (an unforgivable appearance of a freakin' howitzer early and late-film announces itself in the rear and the sub-woofer) to spice up the largely dialogue and folk tune-driven track. A clear and legible centre channel represents the lion's share of yak.
Speaking of "yak," a feature-length commentary with director O'Neill and co-writer/star David Sherrill (actor Jeff Cesario is also present for the first fifteen minutes) is genial and tiresome in equal measure. Much of the content is made up of moony philosophizing of the sort found Five Aces ("See, he has to visit the grave of his mom or else his marriage can't work!"), rhetorical questions that apply to no one ("Hey, how many times has this happened to you?" is asked at least six times--answer: What the hell are you talking about?), and two references to Cadence, which must mark a new cultural watershed. The most embarrassing revelation from the pair is that their film was researched through Joseph Campbell and is a combination of Cassavetes's Husbands and The Wizard of Oz, with numerous homages paid along the way to Apocalypse Now--proving, beyond a doubt, that no one sets out to make something mediocre. Between the stunning opinion that Charlie Sheen is a gifted filmmaker and the not-so-stunning confession that the most maudlin speech of Five Aces was written the night before and specifically for co-writer Sherrill to over-emote, there is nary a silent moment. Alas. A trailer and sparse cast & crew filmographies round out the disc. Originally published: May 20, 2002.